Chevra Kaddisha Conference notes

 Las Vegas, NV June 6-7-8, 2004

 What a whirlwind conference I just came home from! 

Bennett and I flew to Las Vegas on Friday for a few days to ourselves, staying at the Gold Coast Hotel.  Friday afternoon friends met us at the hotel and took us to see Red Rock Canyon--what a gorgeous sight.  Friday evening we had dinner in a wonderful restaurant overlooking a golf course, the valley of Las Vegas, and the mountains in the background.  Absolutely breathtaking!  Saturday we walked “the Strip” in 100+ degree heat and had a fantastic buffet dinner at the Rio Hotel where we saw a free show.

Sunday morning we checked out of the Gold Coast bound for Temple Beth Sholom where the conference was to be held.  Since we could not check into the Sun Coast Hotel until 2 PM where the conference attendees were all staying, Bennett and I along with Wendy Kraft, conference chair helped Melanie Greenberg and Marlow Mogill set up the registration table. 

We toured the Holocaust Memorial that the synagogue members raised millions of dollars for, saw the beautiful Mivke, and roamed the synagogue to see where workshops were to be held.  Conference attendees began arriving, and Bennett took the shuttle bus to the hotel and registered us in.

After all were registered, we went into the Social Hall for a wonderful (kosher) brunch. Plenary A, David Zinner of Kavod v’Nichum gave the opening address “Jewish Communal Obligations in Death and Dying”, which set the tone for the conference.

After David’s opening remarks, we divided into 3 simultaneous workshop groups.  Our first [Workshop 1] consisted of Bruce Bloom from California, Rena Boroditsky from Winnipeg, and I (from Atlanta) had Say “Yes” to Tahara.   The description of our workshop was Practical ways to learn Tahara rituals, using outside trainers, books, videos, and networking; important tips on maintaining skills.

While I’m certainly not an expert, to those who attended our workshop and have never done Tahara; Bruce, Rena and I were that day.  Many questions were asked and all were answered.  Rena is part of Chesed Shel Emes, and Bruce [Tahara Man] works with Chabad in Los Angeles.  Although the three of us do Tahara a little differently, our outcome is all the same.

On to Demonstration 1 of 3 [with all attendees] with Bruce, Rena, and Lynn Greenhough.  Tahara:  Health issues, supplies, inspection and preparation of the body.

Bruce and Rena stressed the importance of checking the deceased for needles, bandages, bedsores, etc., and explained what to do in cases where the skin is very delicate.  Yvette Kaweblum from Boca Raton showed us her “Tahara Kit”, a carry bag containing many items that are used in doing Tahara.  For a donation of $250 a deceased person’s name can be stamped on the bag “in memory of” and that bag is carried by Chevra Kaddisha members when they do Tahara.  Yvette explained that many funeral homes in Florida where they are called to do Tahara are not fully set up with supplies; so her group carries much of their own.

Photos were taken, and questions were asked.

Bennett joined us for Sunday dinner and Plenary B [with all attendees] with Rabbi Felipe Goodman of Temple Beth Sholom.  His talk was on The Challenge of Redefining the Role of Chevra Kaddisha in the 21st. Century”, of which he shared copies with all of us.

After dinner some of men davened Mincha in the Chapel, while others of us chose to network and talk of the day‘s events.  I saw our hotel room for the first time at 10 PM Sunday evening.  Was it ever beautiful..7th floor, overlooking a golf course with the mountains surrounding us.

Monday morning we were up very early (at Shul by 7:30 AM) and had breakfast at the conference.  Again we divided into 4 different workshops] and  at 9 AM David Wachtel of the Jewish Theological Seminary began his Workshop 2:  The History of Chevra Kaddisha.  Discovering the historical significance of Chevra Kaddisha focusing on the Prague Chevra Kaddisha.  David showed slides, discussed portions of from this world to the next, Jewish approaches to Illness, Death & the Afterlife.  What a dynamic man!  I could have listened to him for hours.  I found this workshop fascinating, and wanted to hear more…

Demonstration 2 of 3 [again with all attendees] began with Bruce Bloom, Rena Boroditsky, and Lynn Greenhough titled,   Tahara:  Rechitza (cleansing) and Tahara (purification).

There was much discussion with this demonstration.  We learned that some groups cut fingernails and toenails and bury them with the deceased, while other groups clean under the nails.  Some groups do not comb the hair after washing, some groups brush very gently.  Some groups cover the entire face, while other groups do not. Some sprinkle dirt from Israel on the male genitals, heart, and eyes, while some place the dirt in a pouch and place under the head.

What we did learn is that there is no right way and no wrong way to do Tahara.  Every group tweaks their ritual just a little bit to suit their areas and customs.  After all, the end result is always the same.  We prepare loved ones with much dignity, respect and honor that they deserve.

Monday afternoon and Workshop 3 was David Wachtel Dying as a Jew, Jewish deathbed practices from historical, legal and traditional perspectives, books on the origins of Jewish practices regarding death and dying.  Another extremely interesting workshop.  So interesting that I purchased the book from which David got much of his material.  Would I love to be able to use some of this material to educate the community!  I was torn between attending Laurie Kurs’ workshop or David’s.  Sense I couldn’t be in two workshops at the same time, David’s was my choice.

Workshop 4 was made up of Bruce Bloom, Barry Pitegoff from Florida, Melanie Greenberg our moderator from Las Vegas, and me - our subject Start Spreading the News - Educating the community about Tahara and Chevra Kaddisha and developing successful outreach strategies.  Again, I wanted to split myself in half and attend Laurie Kurs’ workshop Shiva and Beyond - Staying in touch with the family through Shiva and beyond. 

Some workshops were duplicated, and some were not.

WELL!  Did we have material to pass out!!  I had copies of The Atlanta Jewish Times with my photo on the front cover, copies of The Jewish Georgian with an article that I wrote when Rabbi Riemer spoke, numerous articles for the Shofar, an article that Robert Wittenstein wrote--copies of our Tahara Ritual Outline just to name a few.  Barry Pitegoff came with a type written paper, 5 pages long  with the theme of How we have been evolving from a Cemetery Committee to a Chevra Kaddisha.  Barry has been his [Reform] congregations  Cemetery Committee for many years and they are just now beginning to expand to do Chevra Kaddisha.  Bruce echoed much of what Barry and I said about spreading the news.  Questions were asked, many wanted to talk to us privately, more photos were taken and more papers passed around.  Many in this workshop were just beginning their Chevra’s and were not sure how to “advertise” for members.  Much to my surprise and delight, many Reform congregations were represented at the conference, and are finding their “Jewish roots”.  The workshops that I assisted in leading had more new members to Chevra Kaddisha than seasoned ones; their enthusiasm to do this Mitzvah really showed by their questions to us.

I kvell to think that we were the first Reform congregation (that we know of) to form a Chevra Kaddisha.

Bennett joined us again, and on to dinner; another delicious kosher meal prepared by a Las Vegas 5 star chef (who happens to be a member of the congregation).  Such a long day, we’d been at the Shul since 7:30 AM; several of us opted out on Plenary C “The Jewish View of Afterlife”, which was open to the public, and chose to go back to our hotel rooms to sleep.   Ummm, did sleep feel good!  I think it was still light outside when my head hit the pillow.

Tuesday morning we were at the Shul again, by 7:30.  Barry and I had breakfast the went into Workshop 5, a duplicate of Start spreading the News - Educating the Community about Chevra Kaddisha and developing successful outreach strategies.

Barry and I did that workshop together as Bruce was nowhere to be seen.  More new comers to Chevra Kaddisha; this was monitored by David Zinner who had comments for those attending as well.  Again, questions were asked, papers were exchanged, as well as telephone numbers and email addresses for assistance where needed.

I made some new friends, and renewed some old from last year’s conference.  What a whirlwind in three days time!

After our workshop ended, all of us went back into the small social hall for Demonstration 3 Tahara: Dressing, Knot Tying and Casketing”.  I learned a new way to tie the “Shin”. Learned how to move a newly deceased person from the bed to the floor with no other assistance; saw how a Tallis is draped around a man’s shoulders after being dressed in burial garments. 

Rabbi Min Kantrowitz volunteered to be dressed in burial garments [the preferred choice of words rather than Shroud]. I was asked to participate in this demonstration.  Many conference attendees had never seen these garments before and had no idea of how to dress the deceased.

I came home with a revised Tahara manual from Temple Beth Israel - Eugene, Oregon, also with this information I picked up the history of how their Chevra began, Orientation & Guidelines; Treasure Each Day: A guide to Jewish Rituals of Death and Mourning; a guide for assembling a casket from Arkwood Caskets; Tahara Procedure manual from Linda White of Temple Beth Sholom whose group is newly formed.   I also picked up papers from the Gesher HaChayim which was first published in 1949 by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky; this Workshop 4 was facilitated by Rabbi Yocheved Mintz during the same time that Barry and I had our workshop.  Rena Boroditsky brought numerous copies of her Taraha Guide that is 15+ pages; and last but not least, Rabbi Goodman’s Role of the Chevra Kaddisha in the XXI Century.  What a library I have on Tahara and Chevra Kaddisha.

After lunch all of us went into our final Plenary D given by Rabbi Alfredo Borodowsky, Ph.D. on Building Chevra Kaddisha into our Communities.  Rabbi Borodowsky had us in stitches as he told stories of his first days at the seminary in Cincinnati.  Rabbi Borodowsky was a lawyer in South America, and decided as a grown man to become a Rabbi.  I wish that I had taped his talk.  What an inspiration to all of us!

After all was said and done; with many of our friends on shuttles to the airport, some of us stayed for the Kavod v’Nichum meeting with David Zinner.  How I would love to have this conference in Atlanta.

Barry and I took the shuttle with some of our new friends back to the hotel where Bennett was waiting for me.  We all said our goodbyes and our friends picked us up and took us to their home to swim and have dinner.  After dinner Merle and Herb drove Bennett and me back to the hotel to gather our luggage and board the last shuttle to the airport for our 11:30 PM [red-eye] flight back to Atlanta.  We landed at 6:30 AM Wednesday morning; and today, Thursday I typed my notes.

What an honor it was to be part of such a wonderful conference.  As it was said “Next Year in New York City”.

Reba Herzfeld, Chair
Temple Emanu-El Chevra Kaddisha